If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
-I Corinthians 13
What we believe and refuse to believe
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
-Matthew 5:31, 32
A mentor once helped me with a way to read scripture, given that the books of the Bible were written so long ago. How do we go about applying the text to the realities of life today, when the times, they are a-changin’? He spoke about what he believe and what he refuse to believe. We might want to consider those alternatives as we reflect on what Jesus said about divorce. To our ears, where divorce is a reality in so many families (including my own), can his pronouncement serve as a blanket ban on divorce?
We might think that if any group was likely to embrace such a ban, it would be the biblical literalists in our midst. Which makes it interesting that a 2018 study by the Barna Research Group indicated that the highest divorce rates are in the Bible Belt: “Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma round out the Top Five in the frequency of divorce…the divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average” of 4.2/1000 people. Nine states in the Northeast (Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Maryland) have the lowest divorce rates, averaging just 3.5/1000 people. Go figure.
Having said all that, I choose to refuse to believe that these verses call for a ban on all divorce. In my experience, divorce is never pain-free, but it is sometimes the best course of action. At the same time, I’m not dismissing what Jesus has to say.
What I do believe is that Jesus is providing an interesting and helpful way to bring the ancient tradition into our own time. In several places in this long sermon, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said…” It’s his way of acknowledging the tradition. And then he says: “But I say to you…” In other words, he himself was no biblical literalist. And like the E.F.Hutton commercial, my ears perk up when we hear Jesus say: “But I say to you…”
He moves beyond the letter of the law to explore its spirit. He recognizes that the law of his tradition made provision for divorce, a certificate that served as protection for a woman who may have been dismissed for inconsequential reasons, like cooking a bad meal. Jesus speaks of a higher calling, one marked by values of mutuality and fidelity, two guiding principles of committed relationships. He says that the law of love which he came to incarnate does not allow for people simply to be dismissed.
His standard moves beyond legalism to a more rigorous standard, found in the greatest commandment which he gave: love of God with everything we have, and love of neighbor as self. Those two loves are inextricably intertwined, which is what makes this such a rigorous standard. I’m not sure I’ve run across anyone who has been able fully to live into that call.
You can decide what you make of Jesus’ pronouncement on divorce, believing or refusing to believe what you want. But it’s clear to me that he was calling his disciples to have a new heart, filled with love of God and neighbor, described in that famous chapter from I Corinthians printed in the column on the left. He sets a standard I’m not sure any of us can meet this side of glory. But we can take steps, even this week, to live more fully into that call, to let the way of love be the way we move forward, even if it’s only very small step by very small step.
Good Book Club to start 2022 with Exodus
Start the new year with a renewed spiritual practice of reading God’s Word. Forward Movement, with support from partners from around the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, will celebrate the time of Epiphany with a new round of the Good Book Club by reading the first half of the Book of Exodus.
Exodus recounts the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. We hear the great stories of Moses, from his discovery by Pharaoh’s daughter on the bank of the river to the burning bush to his presentation of the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we encounter God’s covenant and explore the grand theme of redemption.
This year, we have a bonus time of scripture engagement: the Good Book Club will dive into the first twenty chapters of Exodus from Epiphany, January 6, to Shrove Tuesday, March 1. For those who want to keep reading, we’ll offer a daily reading guide and an overview of the second half of Exodus. That reading period will conclude on Easter.
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Joining the Good Book Club is easy: Open your Bible and start reading!